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INFLUENCE OF THE BABYLONIAN EXILE ON THE 
RELIGION OF ISRAEL 



PROFESSOR GEORGE A. BARTON, PH.D. 
Bryn Mawr, Pa. 



Disaster and sorrow compel either a soul or a nation to seek 
anew the foundations of life. Times of sorrow are accordingly 
times of religious growth. The Babylonian exile was no exception. 
Indeed, the influence of this exile upon the religion of Israel was 
enormous. This was in part due to the fact that the exile was the 
external event necessary to crystallize the results of prophetic 
influences which had been at work for a long time, but it was also 
in part due to the deepening and clarifying of religious perception 
which disaster and sorrow bring. 

The influence of the Babylonian exile is discernible in three 
great realms of life: (i) in the apprehension of religious truth; 
(2) in the outward organization of the religious life; and (3) in 
the standards of public morals. We shall endeavor briefly to 
treat each of these points, but before doing so a few words are 
necessary with reference to the nature of the exile itself. 

It is often popularly supposed that at the time of the Baby- 
lonian exile Israel's life was completely broken off, and that the 
whole population was transported en masse to Babylonia. Such 
certainly was not the case. Nebuchadrezzar made two depor- 
tations of the higher officials, the priests, and the more wealthy 
citizens. One of these was in 598, the other in 586. Counting the 
families of those who were deported, probably not more than 
25,000 or 30,000 people, all told, were transported. The great 
mass of the population, which in every country constitutes the 
poorer classes, was left in Palestine. The life of the poor thus left 
behind, robbed of their leaders, their capital desolated, and their 
land's trade ruined, must have been very hard. The most of 
those capable of leading in thought and action were with the 
exiles in Babylonia. It thus came about that, though the life of 

369 



370 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

the nation was not absolutely uprooted, the exiles exerted upon 
the future a degree of influence far out of proportion to their 
numbers. 

The influence of the exile upon the apprehension of religious 
truth is disclosed in the study of one or two of the greatest per- 
sonalities of the period — Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah. These 
were the two greatest thinkers of the time, and in their presenta- 
tion of religious truth we ascertain the forefront of religious thought 
— the "new theology" of the period. 

In the years of struggle while the exile was impending Jere- 
miah had under its shadow grasped the great truth that" religion 
is inward in character, that it is a matter of the heart, and that 
no outward temple or ritual is necessary to its maintenance. 
This was a great step forward. Little more than a century before 
Isaiah had declared that Jerusalem was necessary to the worship 
of Yahweh and that he would defend it (Isa. 31:5). Jeremiah 
on the contrary declared that Yahweh would himself destroy 
the Holy City (see 22:1-12), and that in the future God's 
covenant with his people was to be a covenant of the heart, not 
an outward covenant of stones and ceremonies (Jer. 31:33). This 
great step forward in religious thinking was most timely. In 
the years to come when the sanctuary was desolate, and when many 
Jews were exiles in distant lands, it was this faith that religion was 
a matter of inward attitude rather than outward institution that 
kept Hebrew faith ahve. Without it the Judaism of later times 
could never have been born. 

Closely connected with the great truth of the inwardness of 
religion are three other great religious truths first set forth by 
Jeremiah under the shadow of the exile which are of prime impor- 
tance. These are theoretical monotheism, or the recognition that 
the gods of the heathen are figments of the imagination, the per- 
ception that God is as willing to welcome penitent Gentiles as 
penitent Jews to his worship, and the fact of individual respon- 
sibility in morals. 

Practical monotheism was from the time of Amos the working 
theory of all of Israel's prophets, but until Jeremiah no one had 
declared the non-existence of heathen deities. That step Jere- 



BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 371 

miah took, telling his contemporaries that such gods were mere 
"vanities" or figments of the imagination (Jer. 10:15; 14:22). 
Of course he did not succeed in persuading all his contemporaries 
to adopt this view, and the older view, that a heathen deity repre- 
sented some sort of a reality, lingered on for centuries. St. Paul, 
though he agreed with Jeremiah in principle (I Cor. 8:4 ff.), was 
still unable to shake himself entirely free from the older view 
(I Cor. 10:20). Nevertheless the insight of Jeremiah was very 
significant, and did much to clarify religious thinking. 

Similarly Jeremiah's conception of the attitude of Yahweh 
toward the Gentile nations was much in advance of that of Isaiah. 
Isaiah (10:5 ff.) had represented Assyria as existing simply as a 
rod with which Yahweh could chastise Israel, and just as a father, 
when the whipping is over, breaks the useful switch and throws 
it away, so Yahweh, when his correction of Israel was completed, 
would break his rod, Assyria, and cast her aside. The thought 
underlying this was that God loves Israel only, and that all other 
nations exist only for her benefit. Jeremiah, on the other hand, 
pictures a time when all nations shall awaken to the fact that their 
gods are vanities and lies and shall come with confession to Yahweh 
and shall be welcomed by him (16 : 19-21). 

In early Semitic life the family was such a unit that it stood or 
fell together. A good example of this is the story of the punish- 
ment of Achan in Josh., chap. 7. The prophets of the eighth cen- 
tury had denounced the sins of the nation rather than the sins of 
individuals. Individual sins seemed to gain their significance 
from their effect on the nation. Jeremiah, on the other hand, 
enunciates the great principle of individual responsibility in morals 
(31:29, 30), and in this he was cordially seconded by Ezekiel (see 
Ezek., chap 18). How much the recognition of this principle 
meant to a healthy moral and religious life cannot be overesti- 
mated. These four great steps forward in the apprehension of the 
true principles of religion and morals had been taken by Jeremiah 
under the impending shadow of the exile. His sensitive spirit, 
because of its premonitions of impending change, grasped these 
more spiritual and fundamental truths. 

In one respect the Second Isaiah, some forty years later, enlarged 



372 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

the theory of religion. The contribution of this prophet to reli- 
gious thought relates to the solution of the problem of suffering. 
As in exile he brooded over the reason why the leaders of his 
people had been torn from their homes and the independence of 
his land destroyed, he saw in these events the fulfilment of a 
divine mission. Like Jeremiah he believed that Yahweh would 
welcome the coming of the heathen to himself, but he went beyond 
Jeremiah in believing that God had chosen Israel to be his mis- 
sionary, and the sufferings involved in the uprooting of the people 
which had marred the nation's beauty and left only the unlovely 
stump of her peasant population in the dry ground, was in part 
vicarious. Israel had suffered at the Lord's hand double for all 
her sins (Isa. 40:2). The half of this was for the sins of the 
nations. Later (52:15) he pictures the kings of these nations as 
standing astonished at Israel's sufferings, and then in a flash of 
insight perceiving that "he hath borne our griefs and carried our 
sorrows" (53:4 ff.). 

It was thus that this unnamed preacher took up the great 
thought of Jeremiah as to God's universal care for the nations 
and made it illuminate the old faith that Israel was the chosen 
people. She had been conceited, thinking that she was chosen 
for her superior worth; her real choice was that through knowledge 
of God and through suffering she might win the world to him. This 
great flash of insight was directly bom out of the crushing pain 
of the exile. 

It in no way detracts from this great conception that it was 
unheeded by the prophet's contemporaries and plays almost no 
part in the post-exilic thought. One writer only, the author 
of the magnificent missionary tract, the Book of Jonah, took it up 
and urged it. Apart from this the idea waited till the sufferings 
of the Ideal Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, enabled men to read the 
prophet's words in their light. They nevertheless stand as one of 
the profoundest glimpses ever obtained by a human mind into the 
great truth of the social oneness of man, and of the great fact in 
this social fabric which we call humanity that it is along the nerves 
of suffering and of sacrifice that the redeeming influences of the 
higher life are conveyed. 



BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 373 

Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah were two men unusually 
endowed with the power of thought and with sympathetic religious 
insight. To trace the influence of the exile upon the outward 
organization of Israel's religion other personages must be studied. 
The first of these is Ezekiel. 

Ezekiel was a priest of a sufficiently prominent family so that 
Nebuchadrezzar had selected him for deportation with the first 
body of exiles in 598. Five years later he became a prophet and 
before the city fell in 586 he had won a commanding position by 
his utterances. Among the exiles at Tel Abib he urged the 
same principles and attitudes of mind which Jeremiah was urging 
in Jerusalem. After the city fell he continued for some fifteen 
years to be the counselor and comforter of the exiles, and before 
his death drew up a new plan for the reconstruction of the politi- 
cal and religious life of Israel, when the opportunity should come 
to return. We find his plan in Ezek., chaps. 40-48. 

In studying Ezekiel' s plan one is at first surprised to see how 
much detail is given concerning the temple and its ritual. These 
things assume in his book an importance which seems to bring 
reUgion back from the regions of the heart where Jeremiah had 
placed it, to the realm of outer ceremonies. It should be remem- 
bered, however, that in Ezekiel the afflatus of the prophet was 
translated through the education and traditions of a priest. It 
must also be remembered that the marriage between prophetic 
ideals and ritualistic requirement had been begun in the middle of 
the preceding century by the authors of the Deuteronomic law. 
It had been perceived, perhaps, by Isaiah the son of Amoz him- 
self, that the world was not ready for a spiritual religion without 
ritual, and so the Deuteronomic legislator or legislators had drawn 
up a code which reduced ritual to the smallest possible limits 
and eliminated its grossly immoral features. 

It was upon this foundation that Ezekiel built, but he regulated 
certain detafls of the ritual with greater definiteness. Even 
Deuteronomy had permitted the menial work of the sanctuary, 
such as making music and slaying the sacrifices, to be performed 
by foreign slaves; Ezekiel directed that this should no longer be 
so, and out of the descendants of the priests of the old country 



374 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

shrines he legislated into existence the class called Levites (see 
Ezek. 44:8-13). 

Some seventy years later Ezekiel's example was followed by 
another priest who compiled the code of holiness (Lev., chaps. 
17-26), and fifty years later still, by another who composed the 
main body of the Priestly Document of the .Pentateuch. 

In the period between 621, when Josiah introduced his reform, 
and the exile, the struggle to secure the observance of the Deuter- 
onomic law had been very severe. Jeremiah and his contempora- 
ries had not only had to work against the superstitions of the 
common people who inhabited the outlying towns in which shrines 
existed, but also against the self-interest of powerful priesthoods 
whose livings were cut off by the reform. Large numbers of these 
priests had been carried into exile. No doubt such of them as 
were not attached to the Deuteronomic reform lost their hold 
upon the faith of their fathers and were merged in the heathen life 
about them. Some of them, however, even from the country 
shrines, chastened by the great disaster of exile became, probably, 
converts to the reform. These priests were the guardians of 
ancient traditions of ritual as these traditions had been handed 
down in various shrines, and in the HoUness Code and the Priestly 
Document many of these old traditions found literary and legis- 
lative form. The pious exiles who penned them were careful to 
mold them to the new spirit. All features which had fostered the 
sensual practices of the high places were eliminated. The ritual 
finally presented was a ritual purged by prophetic insight ; it made 
the social corruption against which the prophets had inveighed 
a crime. 

Soon after 450 B.C. (scholars differ at present as to the exact 
date) Ezra brought the new law from Babylonia and with Nehe- 
miah's aid induced the people in solemn assembly to bind them- 
selves to keep it. In this way the exile gave to Israel the law. 
It terminated the period of the prophets, and inaugurated the 
period of the Pentateuch. The great ideals for which the prophets 
had striven had, when reinforced by the disasters of the exile, 
purified the ritual, but for the mass their ideal of religion as a 
thing of the heart had been abandoned. Religion was a matter of 



BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 375 

external rule. In individual souls, however, the old ideal was 
cherished as the Book of Job and Pss. 50 and 51 witness. 

In spite, however, of the theory of religion which underlay the 
adoption of the ritual law, the situation was such that it could 
not undo the prophetic work altogether. Even in Palestine itself 
many lived too far from the temple to often share in its services, 
and there were many who continued to live in Babylonia and 
other distant lands. These were compelled to make their religion 
to some extent a thing of the heart. They could observe many 
of the legal rules and could read and meditate upon the law, but 
their sacrifices were for the most part necessarily sacrifices of the 
heart. In spite, therefore, of the rebuilding of the temple Jere- 
miah's doctrine that religion was independent of the sanctuary 
was reinforced by the circumstances of the people. 

The exile not only changed the organization of Israel's ritual, but 
it gave Judah a renovated social life. One has but to visit an excava- 
tion of an old Palestinian high place like that of Gezer and look upon 
the obscene emblems without number which were presented as 
offerings there, and which are themselves witness to the sacrifices 
of chastity which were continually made in those places in the 
name of religion, to realize what sinks of corruption every high 
place in Palestine was down to the year 621. The temple at 
Jerusalem was no exception to this rule as II Kings 23:7 testifies. 
The reform of Josiah had, no doubt^ checked these corrupting 
influences for a time, but Ezekiel bears witness to the fact (Ezek. 
8:1 ff.) that such worship was not suppressed. No doubt it con- 
tinued to be practiced by the poor who were left in the land, for 
we learn from Isa. 65:3, 4, 11 that in the early days after the exile 
other old practices were still maintained. As, however, the new 
Judah became reorganized and the new law had time to make 
itself felt, all this was corrected. These old social sores were 
healed; the fountains of corruption dried up and, while lapses 
from morality no doubt occurred, as they do in all lands, there 
was a great difference in the general social level in this respect 
in the days after the exile. Thus the exile profoundly affected 
theology, ritual, and morals — the theory of religion, the practice 
of worship, and the application of religion to life. 



376 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

So deeply did the exile cut into the national life, so wonderful 
did the resuscitation of the nation seem, that the memory of it 
lingered long to color with bitterness or thankfulness the senti- 
ments of later years — bitterness if the thought centered on the 
persecutors, thankfulness if it centered on the gracious deliver- 
ance Yahweh had wrought. Happily thoughts of the last-men- 
tioned variety generally prevailed. We have but one psalm like 
the 137th with its pathetic beginning and bitter ending, while 
there are several which express the other sentiment. Thus Ps. 
85:1: 

Yahweh, thou hast loved thy land, 

Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob. 

Similarly Ps. 124:6 fi.: 

Blessed be Yahweh, 

Who did not give us a prey to their teeth! 

Our soul has escaped like a bird from a fowler's snare ; 

The snare is broken and we have escaped. 

Also Ps. 126:1 fF.: 

When Yahweh brought back the captivity of Zion 

We were like them that dream. 

Then was our mouth filled with laughter 

And our tongue with singing. 

On the whole the memories of the exile seem to have deepened 
Jewish appreciation of Yahweh's goodness and to have contributed 
to a sense of gratitude for divine mercies, which must often have 
been the basis of consecration to divine service. 

Two other influences of the Babylonian exile upon Hebrew 
religion should briefly be noted. In Babylonia the Hebrews came 
in contact with a fascinating mythological literature. However 
much they might be offended by its mythology, the subject-matter 
of such poems as the creation epic and the Gilgamesh epic greatly 
attracted them. That these had an effect even during the exile 
itself is shown by the influence of the Babylonian Creation 
epic upon the Priestly writer's account of the creation in Gen., 
chap. I, and by the fact that he adopted the account of the flood. 
The flood story was not so significant, however, as it had made 
its way westward centuries before and been given to the Hebrews 



BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 377 

by y. These Epics were destined in the post-exilic days to exert 
a great influence. Poets like the author of Job (see Job 3:8, 9: 13, 
and 26:12, 13) and Psalmists, such as the author of Ps. 89 (see 
vs. 10), found in this material some of their most telling illustra- 
tions. As time went on, too, an allegorical application of these 
stories had, as Gunkel has shown, an important influence in shaping 
the apocalj^tic expectations of the Jews, leading them to believe 
that, as the present heaven and earth were created through con- 
flict, upheaval, and struggle, so the new heaven and the new earth 
must be inaugurated by a similar conflict with the supreme power 
of evil, and by a supernatural cataclysm. Thus in a remote, yet 
direct, way the exile helped to transform the messianic expectations 
of the Jews from the simple character in which they had been held 
by the prophets to the supernatural character that they take on 
in the apocalyptic literature. 

In still another way the exile exerted an influence upon Israel 
for many centuries. This was through the establishment of a 
permanent and prosperous colony of Jews in Babylonia. Even 
at the early date of the exile the Hebrew evinced that striking 
aptitude for business which has characterized him since. Many 
who had been transported to Babylonia entered into business 
there. The documents found in the business archives of Nippur 
reveal many Jewish names among the business men of the Persian 
period. These men were faithful to their religion, but were too 
prosperous to go back to Palestine. For fifteen hundred years 
from their transportation by Nebuchadrezzar these Hebrew com- 
munities in Babylonia were known as the Goliuth or "Captivity." 
That there were students of the law among them, we have already 
seen. In the days of Zechariah this "Captivity" was already 
contributing to Jerusalem silver and gold (see Zech. 6:10, 11). 
In the time of Nehemiah, Ezra and the law came from the "Cap- 
tivity." Such gifts were but the earnest of many which were to 
follow. In the time of Herod the Great, Hillel, another great 
teacher of the law, was given by Babylonia to Jerusalem. Inter- 
ested in all that pertained to their race and reUgion, these wealthy 
Babylonian Jews developed schools of the law that influenced the 
whole Jewish world, giving finally to their church the Talmud in 



378 THE BIBLICAL WORLD 

what is, perhaps, its most influential form, the "Babylonian 
Talmud." 

Perhaps no single event in Hebrew history influenced her 
religion more deeply than the Babylonian exile. Of course the 
exodus from Egypt and the covenant with Yahweh were more 
fundamental, but the Babylonian exile helped more than any 
succeeding event to bring these earlier events to their legitimate 
spiritual fruitage.